"I Sing Night and Day": The Spiritual Songs of Elias Neau in the Atlantic World

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Richter, Anne Fontaine Downs
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School of Theology Thesis 2023 , University of the South , School of Theology , Elias Neau , Atlantic World , Writings
This thesis examines the life and writings of Elias Neau (1662-1722), a Huguenot sailor, merchant and catechist for the Society of the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG). I argue that Neau's devotional cantiques, written in French and influenced by European devotional movements, provide insight into the early catechetical practices in the mainland colonies and highlight the role of singing and affective religion, more than thirty years before the First Great Awakening brought revivalist practices to enslaved Africans. I first trace Neau’s travels throughout the Atlantic world, from his childhood in France, to the West Indies, to Puritan Boston, to his imprisonment in Louis XIV’s galleys and prisons in Marseilles, to his life in New York as a catechist for the SPG. In studying Elias Neau as a “man of the Atlantic World,” I am able to show the complex interrelationship of experiences and opinions that formed his life and work. In exploring Neau’s school for the enslaved in New York, I am able to examine what we know about the lives of his students, and I expose the troubles and conflicts that Neau faced in his controversial work. In order to understand Neau’s writings, I outline the varied affective movements so prevalent across the Atlantic World in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. I then specifically analyze the content of Neau’s cantiques and the influence of European affective religion on Neau’s own beliefs. I concentrate on describing five prominent themes in Neau’s cantiques: creation as the “divine mirror” of its all-powerful Sovereign; the sinner’s need for grace and divine sanctification; the desire for union with God; personal salvation through the Blood of Jesus Christ; and the place of human suffering in obtaining a heavenly reward. I then set each theme in its context, pointing to other works that reflect similar concepts.